Friday, October 31, 2008

Hallowe'en Comes to Stravinsky's Tavern

It was a dark and stormy night when the Classical Music Radio Station WLVB’s cub reporter Franz “Bud” Schubert went down to Stravinsky’s Tavern for his latest interview. This wasn’t one he was particularly grateful to be assigned since, as a news journalist, you’re not supposed to have any viewpoints of your own, but this one he did. He had tried to talk his boss out of it, but News Director Sir Arthur Sullivan didn’t have anybody else available for the gig: the rest were all covering the impending election. Besides, it’s just a personal interest story, nothing earth-shattering, Sullivan told him, just a little something for the Hallowe’en broadcast, you know? He was busy getting his own Hallowe’en costume on, but Schubert wasn’t sure if he was trying to be a pirate or a Japanese war-lord.

Shrugging his diminutive shoulders, Schubert put on his best poker-face, grabbed his overcoat and headed down to the tavern.

Nicolo Paganini was only in town for a single concert but he agreed to do the interview if it could be done over dinner, hence meeting at the tavern. Schubert hadn’t actually met him before, but their paths had crossed back during his Vienna days. Everywhere you went, it was Paganini This and Paganini That. Nobody was interested in a poor home-grown composer writing art songs and operas. He even tried writing music that might cash in on the Italian Craze that had gripped the Imperial capital that season. Funny, too: he wrote two “Overtures in the Italian Style” just to prove he could, and the one got performed when no one was interested in the rest of his symphonies. And wouldn’t you know it, a few years later when he was giving his first all-Schubert concert, it ended up being scheduled the same day as one of five recitals Paganini was giving in town that week! He was still pretty steamed about that one: he thought he was doing pretty well, considering his usual financial problems, bringing in 320 florins at the box-office, but then he read that Paganini brought in about 5600 florins per concert. There weren’t even any critics around to review his own concert because they were all – every last one of them – at Paganini’s concert. So no one ever read anything about his new piano trio or the songs he’d composed just for this big occasion. Yeah, he was not looking forward to having to interview this guy.

The tavern was busy as usual, warm and inviting once you closed the door behind you and cut out the winds that howled down the street of this little mining town. Stravinsky himself was behind the bar, motioning him over with a big smile. The place had a kind of quiet glow about it and everybody was chattering back and forth.

“Hey, Bud,” he radiated, “good to see you again – the usual?”

“Sure, why not? I know I’m working tonight, but hey...” Schubert looked around. He heard comments about the up-coming election and knew he couldn’t get involved in any of the discussions, whether he’d be voting for Brahms or Wagner. His mind was made up long ago but since he was supposed to be an unbiased reporter, he couldn’t talk about his own ideas much less wear campaign buttons.

Most of the others seemed to be dressed for Hallowe’en. Stravinsky was even wearing a pair of those fake antennae you strap over your head, little googly eyes bouncing up and down as he hustled from one end of the bar to the other. Schubert hadn’t even noticed he was wearing Groucho Glasses with the fake mustache, too.

Over there was Richard Strauss all decked out like a harem girl – “oh right,” he thought, “Salome with her seven veils.” And John the Baptist standing next to him, the tall guy with a platter stuck around his bloody neck, must’ve been Gustav Mahler. Nice touch with the lipstick smear on his cheek...

Behind them in the next booth sat somebody he thought he knew. “OMG,” he spluttered into his beer, “it’s Mussorgsky - sober! No wonder I didn’t recognize him!” He was sitting there smiling at everybody in great delight. “Ach,” he beamed, “they’re playing my song!” The sound system had just started with the gnat-like buzzing that opens “A Night on Bald Mountain.” (They really should up-grade the sound-system, he thought.)

Sibelius sat across from him, sour as ever, ready to go out trick-or-treating as Uncle Fester.

Mozart, sitting next to him at the bar, was quick to kid Schubert about not being in costume, but when he explained he was actually working tonight, Mozart waved his hand across the front of his face and frowned. “Ugh, work, please – it’s a party night!” He took a deep swill of his beer – Igor’s special Blood-Red Hallowe’en Beer made, so he said, from a virgin ballerina who’d danced herself to death (“not just your usual hops,” he explained with a sly smile) – and smacked his lips in satisfaction.

Stravinsky slid a plain dark beer down the bar toward him and it stopped right in front of his seat. Schubert took a quick swig, wondering where they ever learn to do things like that, a course for bartenders comparable to orchestration or counterpoint, he figured.

“So what are you dressed as,” Schubert asked.

“Well, you’ve probably heard about them trying to identify that skull they think is mine?” He looked around and laughed, tapping the side of his head. “Like I’d ever leave home without it! So I was thinking, you know, maybe I should go as the Headless Horseman or something.” With that, he pulled the collar up over his ears, draping the neckerchief across his face and suddenly Schubert realized he was talking to a tall man with no head! Then Mozart picked up something on the floor beside him which looked like a pumpkin carved with the likeness of his own face but actually was one of those “Mozartkugeln” made out of papier maché. With a quick thud, he planted it on top of his head and twisted it into place on the collar. “Ingenious,” Schubert thought, “he is going as himself!”

“Look, there’s Haydn!” With a laugh, Mozart waved good-bye and wandered off into the crowd.

Schubert craned his neck to see but couldn’t recognize him. Mozart went up to a guy dressed as the Grim Reaper with a powdered wig dangling from a bloody scythe. “Ah, Papa Haydn and his little jokes.” Last year, he’d gone as Al Revescio but since he had to walk backwards everywhere, it turned out to be a real disaster, always bumping into people. They were not amused. So far, Mahler didn’t appear too keen on getting hit in the side of his platter by the swinging wig. Schubert hoped he wasn’t going to behead anyone as he walked around with that scythe.

Just then, there was a blast of wind and swirling leaves from the front door. The crowd froze on the spot and stared at the cadaverous specter backlit by the eerie glow of the street light. Even the music came to a sudden unexpected silence. It was a tall gaunt figure dressed head to toe in deepest black with long black stringy hair, his skin, as tight as if stretched over bone, pale and powdery. His thickly hooded, bloodshot eyes seemed to bulge with the effort of looking into the light. In his long bony fingers, there was a violin case that did not need a price tag on it to inform everyone the instrument inside it was priceless.

Nicolo Paganini had arrived. And he had forgotten to wear a costume.

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

Without a word, Paganini went to a shadowy booth near the back of the bar. Bobsky, Stravinsky’s assistant manager, brought out a steaming plate of pasta smothered in a deep rich marinara sauce – “extra red, just as you like it,” he whispered – and placed it before the granitic visage of their obviously special guest. He had placed the violin case carefully beside him on the bench.

Schubert, trying not to be flustered, shuffled up to the booth.

“Hello, sir, your maestroship, er... I’m uh... Franz Sch-Schubert from WLVB and, uh...”

Paganini gestured simply with the palm of his hand, fin-like, for the short man to sit down across from him. He slowly raised his fork and twirled a few strands of pasta, holding them to his lips and then slowly letting them slide into his mouth, savoring the texture, the aroma and above all the flavor. Gently, he patted his lips with the napkin, nodded discreetly at Bobsky who, with great relief, retreated smiling to the kitchen.

“Did you ever leave your violin in a bar before?”

Paganini’s eyes bugged out twice their already abnormal size which, given how gaunt his face was, was actually very creepy. VERY creepy...

“No, of course not,” Schubert thought, “what a stupid question. Allrightee then...” He took a deep breath and started in. “So, how’re things with you and Satan, these days?”

Gradually, the tavern returned to almost normal, the chatter a little more quiet and reverential than earlier.

After another bite, Paganini put his fork down and dropped his hands into his lap. “Quite good, actually. Yes,” after another pause, “quite good.” He took another bite.

Suddenly, Schubert thought he caught a whiff of brimstone. Either that or someone nearby must have farted. The garlic they use in the marinara here is pretty strong for this part of the country.

“So what are you going to play tonight?” His programs were never announced in advance. Like you’d need an excuse like knowing what he’s going to play to go see the Great Paganini!

“Whatever the spirits move me to play. You know, maybe La streghe – everybody likes witches on Hallowe’en – some caprices... maybe I’ll do an improvisation on the Chorus of Damned Nuns from Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable...” He looked off into the distance, as if going through his mental file-drawer –“and I haven’t played the Moses Variations here for eons.”

“Are you going to grind down the strings so they snap one by one and you have to play it all on one last string? People really think that kind of crap is cool.” Ooops, he thought, keep your mouth shut and your mind blank.

Paganini rolled his eyes and continued eating in silence.

The violinist looked at him from under an arched eye-brow. “You will be voting for Brahms, I take it.”

“Yes. I mean, no, no – really, no, I’m... I’m a reporter, we have no opinions. Of our own, I mean.” He fumbled with the recorder and set it on the table.

Just then a man dressed as a priest appeared beside them. It was Franz Liszt.

“Oh, Franz, hiya,” Schubert said, “nice costume!”

The Abbé Liszt looked at him from under his own arched eyebrow and frowned condescendingly.

“You are alone?” Paganini seemed mildly surprised.

“Oh, Georges Sand came with me but she dressed up as Lot’s Wife and now I have to drag her everywhere in that little red wagon. I told her to wait in the back of the pick-up truck until the recital starts.” He checked his watch. “Which is in about an hour. I will leave you to your dinner – and to your rather short guest.”

Schubert smirked back at him.

Stravinsky brought over a dusty bottle of red wine and two glasses, pouring carefully. Paganini twirled the glass, sniffed and sipped, then smiled. Schubert, meanwhile, took a careful but disappointed sip, wondering how he could set to music the line “Having a wonderful wine, wish you were beer”...

Once they were alone, Schubert asked him, “Did letting people think you actually had sold your soul to the devil to be able to play as well as you do” – again, the eyebrow arched markedly as if “only ‘as well as you do’?” – “I mean, as brilliantly as you do - did that ever, like, you know, backfire?”

Paganini continued eating for a while, as if considering his response.

“When I was on my deathbed, they sent me a priest for the Last Rites, but I thought I still had time to live, you know? So I sent him away. They thought that I refused the Last Rites, period. But as bad luck would have it, I got much worse that night and died before my son was able to call the priest again. It got very strange after that.”

There was a long pause while he ate some more pasta and sipped more wine.

“The Bishop of the lovely city of Nice refused to let me be buried in – how you say, hollowed ground? In a church cemetery – consecrated ground, you call it, yes. For five years, my body was kept in the cellar of the house after the landlord rented out my old rooms, like some piece of baggage left behind by an evicted tenant. Then they took me down to the hospital and kept me in the basement, there. My son managed to escort my body back to my hometown of Genoa but we were not permitted to enter the city, so I was stored in a tower of a country estate. Small wonder people complained of hearing moans and cries late at night coming from the tower.”

He finished his pasta, sopping up the last of the sauce with the garlic bread, then pushed the plate back.

“The gardener charged tourists money to view my corpse.” He calmly poured himself another glass of wine, offering some to Schubert who politely refused. “They caught me a couple times, playing the violin. Eerie, they said, hearing me play – or assuming that must have been me. But you can’t stay in shape if you don’t practice.”

He carefully folded his napkin and placed it on the table.

“It was like being on the road again - moving from Bordighera to San Remo to Port Maurice to Savone to... I forget where else. Ah, Polevra, the first place they allowed me to be buried in the ground - some garden, whatever. It gets old very quickly when you’re dead. Well, anyway, the Pope allowed me to be buried at the Duchess of Parma’s villa – another garden, by the way, nothing consecrated. But then finally, thirty-six years after I died” – pausing as if calculating the years in his head – “yes, thirty-six years later, they buried me in a church cemetery – finally, I could be at peace. Isn’t that what they say – “rest in peace”? I felt like some plant, constantly being dug up and transplanted. They even wanted to put me on display - charge admission...”

Paganini picked up the violin case and held it close to his chest.

“That wasn’t the end of it. Seventeen years later, they dug me up and took a look, I guess to make sure I was still in there. Three years after that, they moved me again, a fancier church, this time. I guess now that I’d been dead for fifty-six years – I was only 57 when I died, you know... throat cancer, too, awful stuff – ah well, fame does not come cheaply, I’m afraid.” He sighed wistfully.

Schubert thought “Not that I’d know anything about fame. At least not while I was alive.”

Paganini quietly rose from the booth and nodded to Stravinsky. He turned ceremoniously to Schubert and said “I do hope you can make my recital this time? Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must prepare myself for the performance.”

And with that, he seemed to glide toward the door. Another blast of wind and leaves and with a slam, he was gone, leaving behind a whiff of brimstone. Or whatever.

The crowd began to break up: most of them were going to the recital down the street, anyway. Haydn had already knocked Mozart’s Mozartkugeln off his head twice. Mahler found he couldn’t fit into the men’s room stall with the platter around his neck and so he was now very uncomfortable. But Schubert had to get back to his desk to prepare the interview for the late-night news – he couldn’t afford to leave this report unfinished or Sullivan would be threatening to assign him to the New Age News Program which made the idea of going back to being dead definitely a consideration.

He pulled his overcoat more tightly around him and headed out into the wind with everybody else. There was Mozart helping Liszt and Chopin who’d just showed up, trying to get Lot’s Wife out of the pick-up truck. Somehow the night just couldn’t get any weirder, he thought.

- - - - - - -
Dr. Dick
© 2008

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